Risk-based programs, tools and techniques


What are the issues if you do not assess the risks in the laboratory? What happens if a researcher multiplies an energetic compound by ten? If this experiment were to kill someone, how would it happen? How can one assess whether they are using sufficient controls to mitigate risk?

Things go wrong in life and in the laboratories; it is part of human nature. Whether they realize it or not, humans assess risk as part of a process, like driving a car, for example. Drivers try to predict how others will react at the time. It is a constant and tiring process. Thus, the brain creates mental shortcuts and is capable of intuitive, quick thinking to drive without doing so consciously step-by-step. While vital for driving, it doesn’t work as well in labs.

Risk Contributing Factors

What is risk and why is it so important to assess and embrace its concept and usefulness? While safety is a binary idea (i.e., safe or dangerous), risk has two or three factors (depending on the context), which makes it more useful and easier to discuss. The three risk factors are severity of consequence, exposure to hazard, and likelihood of outcome. These factors provide plenty of space to have open conversations about risk assessment and our differing viewpoints. In the absence of discussion or risk assessment, laboratory incidents often occur with poor outcomes (eg loss of life or health, broken equipment, loss of data and time, etc.).

Research practices that consider risk assessment include independent work, experimental change, and a drive for cutting-edge innovation. All are typical and often necessary, but they can contribute to risk.

Human decision making plays an important role along with cognitive biases (e.g. confirmation bias, optimism bias, etc.), mental shortcuts (i.e. heuristics), threat to value and quick decisions. This is all part of human nature which, along with ignorance, also adds to the risk.

There are many risk assessment tools, systems, techniques and programs you can use. Each has its own objectives, advantages and limitations. Knowing several of these can help make risk assessments easier and clearer. It is more important to use at least one than to find the perfect one.

Risk Tools

A common approach is the two-factor risk matrix (Figure 1). Risk can be as simple as severity multiplied by probability. Risk ratings are useful for discussing and sorting risks into low, medium, and high groups. Advantages include its simplicity and visualization in matrix form. Two challenges are getting consensus on probability ratings and omitting the third risk factor, exposure.

Figure 1

Laboratory manager

A three-factor risk formula is Risk = Severity (of impact) x Exposure (to hazard) x Probability (of outcome). This adds the third exposure factor, which can be an individual (eg, cycling) or a group (eg, all bicycle commuters). One challenge is to create a useful diagram showing three axes x, y and z. Another is how to assess exposures. Again, using the bicycle as an example, one is much more exposed to danger (i.e. traffic) when riding a bicycle on the road than in a cycle lane. Also, we are more exposed in the busier streets than in the quiet streets of the district.

Some risk assessment tools or techniques reverse engineer a root cause analysis (RCA), a common incident investigation technique (which is not without its limitations). An example from RCA is “Five Whys” in which we keep asking “why?” until we find the source of the incident. We can work backwards by instead asking “how” it might be caused until we find one or more ways, similar to a “what if” approach.

In “what if”, we could reflect on various aspects that go wrong. For example, what if the bottle breaks, what if a glove has a pinhole, or what if the eyewash doesn’t work? Each is assessed, scored according to its severity and likelihood, and treated. We could look at how easy the bottle is to hold, check if the gloves have any pinholes, and check that the eyewash is working properly with no obstacles in our way.

Recognize, Assess, Minimize, Prepare (RAMP) is a widely used risk assessment process made up of the four words as a series of steps. Its step-by-step approach follows a safe approach to hazards: Recognize, Assess and Control.

Many organizations with laboratories have some type of Laboratory Hazard Assessment Tool (LabHAT) or Laboratory Risk Assessment Tool (LabRAT). Most LabHATs have multiple pages with checkboxes (e.g. Hazards, PPE, etc.). Some allow for helpful descriptions that provide detail and context, though it’s not always obvious how they’re parsed on the form. Some LabRATs are more decision-oriented or provide advice on hazard controls. A better approach may be a brief spreadsheet-based algorithm that helps calculate and sum hazards versus subtract implemented controls.

Pre-mortems are a method of pre-determining what might go so wrong that someone (or the project) might die. Ask the question: “If we were to die, what would have killed us?” It’s an effective tool and question to get people to consider the ultimate risk: their life.

Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) is a method that examines each individual part of a system for its possible points of failure. Failure odds can be widely used or numerical ratings can be applied.

When they fail to discuss or assess risks, lab mishaps often occur with poor results.

The fishbone diagram (aka Ishikawa) is a useful holistic way of diagramming the various factors contributing to a process (like an experience). These often include people, methods, materials, environment, etc. The diagram makes it look like a fishbone.

Process hazard analysis is often used in industry to analyze an entire process and may involve many of the other methods listed here. It can take the form of a flowchart, table or other graphics.

Fault tree analysis is a schematic approach using logic gates (e.g., if/then, or, and, not, etc.) that helps show and detail how a process will proceed based on what happens. happening there and from external agents such as humans. .

Pareto charts use bars and a line to indicate how often something happens, such as an error in judgment, measurement, etc. This is common in quality systems, making it a good choice for laboratories.

A discussion about our perceptions of risk is another technique to help lab staff and others engage in meaningful conversations about how everyone perceives risk differently. Perceptions of risk are good for them, but may not match the perceptions of others. Comparing differences openly can foster productive dialogue.

An overlooked but powerful risk communication tool is storytelling. Stories are meaning-making tools that helped us survive 100,000 years ago. Storytelling, with all of its nuances, plot, characters, and emotions, can provide helpful context and better understanding between members of the lab group. There are tribes that tell stories around the fire after the working day is over to iron out conflicts, bond, bond, and celebrate their challenges and deeds.1.2 Sharing stories about lab incidents, near-calls, and risk perceptions facilitates active engagement like no other technique.

Infographic on common types of laboratory hazards

Figure 2

Laboratory manager

Key points to remember

There are many risks in laboratories that can be assessed using one or more effective tools or techniques. Our risk systems, cognitive biases and heuristics cause anyone to make strange and, sometimes, bad decisions. These risk assessment methods and programs help us be more objective and critical thinkers, explore probabilities, and demonstrate our due diligence.

It pays to review them and decide which one(s) to use. We often need more than one. Choosing to use one or more is key; finding the one that works in each case is the best. Which should you use? The ones you are most likely to use, understand and use. However, doing without or going it alone is not an option and the odds of poor results will eventually catch up in the lab.


1.Smith, Daniel et al. “Cooperation and the evolution of hunter-gatherer storytelling.” Communication Nature. Flight. 8, number 1, p. 1853. Dec. 2017. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-017-02036-8. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-017-02036-8.

2. Wiessner, Polly. “Embers of society: Firelight talk between the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Flight. 111, number 39, pp. 14027-14035. September 30, 2014. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1404212111. https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1404212111.


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